Does imagination flourish under complete freedom or with some restrictions? How do we work within a box versus without any structure at all?
The #1 response I get from students and adults when I ask them to define Creativity is, "thinking outside the box."
As I work on a podcast episode about imagination, trying to consume more information before framing my argument, I felt compelled to make a quick blog post about one particular aspect of it.
You know those famous studies about people who can’t pick an ice cream? Faced with vanilla or chocolate, a person decides on a flavor. But when they look at 100 different flavors and variations, they become overwhelmed and are more likely to leave without picking an ice cream. On top of that, people with choice paralysis end up feeling worse about the decision they make.
Instead of sitting in brainstorming limbo, use your limitations to propel you forward. A direction to “make some art” is overwhelming in its openness. There are few things more daunting that the blank white sheet of paper. Ask yourself: What kind of art? What medium? For what audience? Try to narrow it down. Imposing constraints in this way gets the action started. In other words, put yourself or your goals into a box, because it turns out that limitations can inspire more successfully imaginative results.
Once you get going, you might notice an odd sense of freedom from your limits. It sounds backwards, but putting a box around yourself gives you something to push against. You’ll find the challenge of a problem creates even more innovation than you might have found otherwise. As Jack White said in Rolling Stone, it’s “the liberation of limiting yourself.”
[Sidenote: there is, of course, a difference between limitations and oppression. Having limited resources for art is not remotely the same as true poverty. Imposing constraints on yourself versus having them imposed by systemic inequality is wildly different. ….And a conversation for another day]
Working within a box can lead to new ideas and different ways of thinking. This can also result in a new skill set. A free-form poet might discover they have a true knack for sestinas when completing a rhyming assignment. Perhaps a 3D artist improves their drawing skills when making a 2D piece. Allow the limits to challenge you, test you, and teach you.
Creating with bare bones also allows you to distill your ideas. I recently gave a TedTalk and had a difficult time fitting my message into the time constraints. I had to pare my speech down again and again in order to make it short enough. It’s possible I deleted some important statements; but I like to think it forced me to convey only the pressing facts--the core--of my message. No tangents allowed! Something I struggle with often.
In whittling down my TedTalk, I had to reexamine myself and my work. I was forced to evaluate what I really wanted to say--what the absolute of my message truly was. So working in a box can teach us new skills, but can also allow us to polish existing ones--or even rediscover them. Maybe the 3D artist completing a drawing learned new skills, but also reminded himself why he works with 3D materials in the first place. Hey, even a teacher trying to convey a message within one class period has to remind themself what it is they truly wants to say!
Steve Jobs once said something along the lines of, "we need boundaries so we know where to push... when you push on one side it's interesting to see what pops out the other end of the box." I have often observed superior results out of students when I give them a restraint, rather than leaving it open. For example, when I ask students to create and illustrate a creative robot I will see a lot of blank stares. If I say that the robot must include an energy source from nature (plant, flower, water, etc...), must have at least 1 arm, and reference a style from a certain decade, then I will see more students diving in right away and better, more detailed & refined results. And of course, I'll have that student who rebels against the boundary and makes something wonderful anyway. Would that rebellious student have been successful without the boundary to push against?
And lastly, limitations can help us to evaluate results. I’m not a big fan of grading for grading’s sake. But having goals for our work lets us “sift effective solutions from the duds.” Maybe we wanted to create a certain reaction in our audience. Maybe we were trying to compose a super-catchy party song. Maybe we want a fashion line for busy moms. Whatever the criteria is, these limits give us a way to say, “This works” or “This is completely wrong.”
There’s simply no way to push the envelope without an envelope. Those limits feel constricting, but are actually wonderful starting points and building blocks. If we’re able to work with our limits instead of against them, we’ll find incredible outcomes. And whatever those outcomes, we’ll certainly emerge with a stronger imagination.